West Side Story at MusicalFare
REVIEW by ANTHONY CHASE
With its current production of West Side Story directed by Chris Kelly, MusicalFare promises us a “reimagined” version of one of the greatest Broadway musicals of all time.
What does that mean?
It seems to mean that the show has been hugely scaled down. What remains is the familiar Boy Meets Wrong Girl / Girl Meets Wrong Boy story, and Leonard Bernstein’s glorious score, albeit with diminished orchestration.
I’m guessing that MusicalFare gambled on the probability that audiences might prefer to see a work of genius done modestly, over an inferior musical done brilliantly. If the robust ticket sales are any indication, with the show 75 percent sold before it had even opened, they seem to be correct. There is a huge appetite to see “West Side Story.”
This is not an occasion when reinvention allows us to see the work in an entirely new way. The reality is that the huge dimensions of West Side Story cannot be disguised. What we get is an opportunity to luxuriate in Bernstein’s melodies and in an overripe tragic romance based on Shakespeare in a production that feels slightly, if forgivably, collegiate.
For anyone unfamiliar with the plot, West Side Story takes place in New York City in the 1950s, in a neighborhood where Puerto Ricans have been moving in, much to the consternation of a white population that’s struggling with its own problems. The two sides are organized into gangs: the Puerto Ricans call themselves the Sharks; the white kids call themselves the Jets. Deadly complications ensue when Tony, former head of the Jets and Maria, younger sister of the head of the Sharks, meet at a dance and fall in love.
There are some things that this production gets delightfully right.
A brilliant set by Lynne Koscielniak features rolling panels of chain link fence that allow Kelly to create any space, interior or exterior with fluidity, and at times to position the Sharks and the Jets outside its periphery, where they seem to observe the proceedings with a collective gaze of judgment or complicity. The potential of the set is arguably underused in a production that often seems to be a case of “Let’s try this. Let’s try that,” rather than a show that was meticulously planned, storyboard style, in advance.
As Tony, Ricky Needham sings a succession of soaring Bernstein songs originally made famous by Larry Kert with power and excellent interpretation. He is complemented by an appealing performance by Dominique Kempf as Maria. She navigates the challenging soprano role capably and with charm.
Sensational fight choreography by Steve Vaughan provides models of story telling matched to music through movement. The execution is crisp and communicative. Indeed, seeing these tight and emotive sequences made me wonder why the same performers looked significantly less graceful while dancing the unfocused choreography.
Outstanding Lighting design by Chris Cavanagh matches the material for dramatic power.
The idea that drives the production, at least conceptually, is that race is arbitrary and a stupid motivation for division between people. This is communicated without subtlety, but also without clarity, by starting and ending the show with actor Joe Russi, who plays A-Rab, doing a bit of Anglo/Latin fashion code –switching – now he’s a Shark; now he’s a Jet.
Sound for the show was problematic on the night I was there and choral numbers often lacked volume and energy. Still, there is something thrilling about seeing so much young talent, which never dips below the standard of competent, assaying material written by some of the greatest geniuses ever to work on Broadway, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Arthur Laurents.
Blaise Mercedes gives an expressive performance as Anita; Alejandro Gabriel Gomez is a proud and willful Bernardo; Jordan Rosas embodies the ever sweet if clueless Chino; Lissette deJesus gives zip to Consuelo the ill-advised blonde; Brendan Didio brings naive exuberance to Action; Matthew DiVita is compelling as bull-headed Riff.
While its not a production for the ages, this bare-boned but faithful West Side Story will satisfy the yearning for a full-bodied book musical from the Golden Age.